I grew up in a typical blue collar Midwest City where working hard and playing hard was a way of life. Men were expected to toughen up when times got rough and plow through them. There wasn’t room for “weakness”. When things became too much, you headed to the bar for a few hours. Nobody talked about what they were dealing with. My dad and every other male figure in my life lived by these rules. Since I didn’t know any better, I also subscribed to this way of thinking.
I found my way out of the hard labor work I saw my parents go through their whole lives and graduated from the University of Iowa in 1994. I accepted a position out of state and moved to Chicago with my girlfriend Christine who later became my wife. We were ready to take on the world. Climbing the corporate ladder was important to us. I was driven by my definition of success so we put off having children because we were to busy building our own little “empire”.
However, in 2003 we decided that it was time to have a child. We soon found out that just because you are ready for a child, doesn’t mean it will just happen. We were planners and not being able to conceive when we wanted to was not part of our plan. After a series of fertility treatments, we conceived our daughter Katie. We were excited to be parents but that excitement turned to sorrow when we lost Katie in the Fall of 2004. I did what I had been taught to do. After a couple of weeks, I toughened up and pushed though this horrible event and the pain I was feeling. I did what every good husband is supposed to do; I became focused on helping Christine through this tragic event. I buried my pain and grief somewhere deep inside and never talked about it. I submerged myself in 60-70 hour work weeks to get my mind off of the loss.
After about a year, we decided that we would try to conceive again with the help of fertility treatments. This time it was a little boy and we felt blessed that little Noah was going to be a part of our lives. I had no idea how much of an impact Noah would have on my life. Noah passed away in the summer of 2006. Again, my life would be changed forever, but this time I couldn’t bury the pain.
I didn’t want to get out of bed and for the most part I didn’t for about 3 months. All of the pain from the loss of Noah and all of the pain I buried deep inside after the loss of Katie rushed to the surface. I couldn’t cope. I called work and told them I would be gone for an extended absence. I didn’t know when or if I would be back. If the job was there when I got back, great, if not, I understood. I tried to fight the grief for a short period of time, but there was no burying it this time around. The journey was extremely hard and much longer than anticipated. I eventually went back to my job after being off for several months. I would sit at my desk every morning and cry, mourning the loss of my sweet babies. I couldn’t wait for the end of the day so I could escape the confines of my cubicle that continually felt more and more like a prison cell. I wanted to run away from everything, but didn’t know where to go. I was too sad to actually make it happen. I would sit at my desk and search the Internet for information and clues as to what was wrong with me. My doctors told me I had depression, I didn’t believe them. Something else must be wrong with me. I could control my response to every other thing that has happened to me in my life, but not this. I finally gave in and realized I needed help. I met with counselors and finally admitted that I was dealing with depression that was a result of suppressed grief. I refused to give in and was determined not to let this define me. There were days I could have easily thrown in the towel. For the first time in my life there were days I didn’t care if I died. I wasn’t suicidal, I just didn’t care.
Once I started talking about my losses and the pain and sadness I carried around with me, people started to reach out to help me. However, it wasn’t the same people or friends that I had always associated with. These were people that I probably would have never met. They were people that have gone through other difficult things in their lives. They were people that didn’t judge you or feel uncomfortable when you started to cry while telling them your story. They embraced you and checked in with you on a regular basis. They would take your calls regardless of what they were doing at the time. They provided me compassion, sympathy and hope. They never told me to toughen up and plow through it. They taught me perseverance and how to handle the loss in a healthy way. By acknowledging my losses it allowed me to release the pain, grief, depression and despair ever so slowly.
I made a promise to Katie, Noah and myself that once I was strong enough, I would reach out to other dads that have lost a child and help them come to terms with their loss and to help them find their way. After you lose a child, it is virtually impossible to continue on through life as if nothing happened. You can’t run from it, nor can you hide from it. Society expects men to do these things, to be strong, but it’s not realistic or fair to ask a father to do this. The best thing any father can do for himself and for others around him is to reach out for help and to know it is not a sign of “weakness”; it’s a sign of courage, courage to face these feelings head on. There is no time frame for healing after such a loss. Some days your emotions will win, but gradually over time it will dawn on you that you are prevailing and a new you is starting to emerge. Maybe the new you will be someone you don’t recognize, but in time you will realize this is the new you and you will learn to live with this person.
I look and feel different now. The stress of their deaths has sprinkled some gray into my hair and lines on my face. It has taken a part of me that I know I will never get back. My definition of success has changed. I no longer feel like I am rushing around all of the time trying to prove myself to the world. I am no longer the go-to guy at work. I do my job, but I don’t do it as if I want to run the company someday. I could easily be persuaded to run off to a simpler way of life. I am working towards a Masters in Counseling Degree so I can provide grieving parents with support from someone that has walked in their shoes. I know Katie and Noah would want me to make a positive impact on other’s lives, which this project has allowed me to do. The idea of helping others helps me. Material things do not hold much meaning to me anymore. Spending time with my wife and my dog Buddy is much more satisfying than working long hours to acquire material items that do not provide happiness. I now know that it’s okay to show emotions and that it’s not a sign of weakness. I prefer a quiet and peaceful life. To be quite honest, I am fairly confident that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t maintain the same pace as before the losses, but I now know that’s okay.